If you don’t enter, you can’t win

Kim Pittaway

“I entered it myself.”

Last week, as I congratulated colleagues on their National Magazine Award nominations, that phrase came up more than once, each time from seasoned magazine writers. And each time, I shared my own story: the first piece I’d ever been nominated for more than a decade ago was one I’d entered myself as well, after getting a call from my handling editor saying she thought it had a shot but her editor wouldn’t okay the budget for the entry fee. I didn’t win that year, but I was a finalist, an honour that went straight onto my resume.

Still, I know many journalists—especially those starting out—who have never considered entering their own work, and wait instead for editors to make the call for them.

I have one question for them: Why?

Sure, most awards programs charge an entry fee so cost may be a factor, but since it’s a business expense you’ll get some of that back at tax time. Yes, it is a bit pushy to, well, push your work forward. But if you don’t believe it’s good why should anyone else?  And okay, maybe the magazine (or, for other awards programs, the newspaper, radio or television program or website) should pick up the tab—but many times they don’t.

WinnerWhy? Limited budgets (“One piece, one category this year—no doubling up”). Internal politicking (“Okay, we’ve already submitted that writer twice, we need to spread the nominations around”). Changes in management (“We’re not submitting anything from the previous regime” probably doesn’t actually get said out loud—but it does happen). And sometimes they just forget (“Did we miss the deadline for those environmental journalism awards? Crap!”).

“As a writer working in the business since 1981, it had never occurred to me to enter my own stories until 2002,” wrote David Hayes in an e-mail describing his decision to enter two pieces this year—on top of the pieces editors entered on his behalf. In 2002, a business magazine he was writing for entered his piece in the Business category—”Given that a business magazine editor’s main interest is in winning awards in the business category, that made sense”—but Hayes felt it stood a stronger chance in the Arts & Entertainment category. He entered it and ended up with an A&E honourable mention.

Since then, he has routinely asked editors if they’re entering his stories, and if they are, in which category (“Diplomatically,” he says, “since some editors might feel awkward about telling a writer their work is not being submitted”). When he thinks a piece warrants it, Hayes has entered work editors declined to and as with that first story, entered in second categories. This year, Hayes is a three-time finalist, and two of those nominations are for pieces he entered himself.

Why enter at all? There’s the money: the NMAs and many other awards come with top cash prizes that can be as much as you earned—or more—for writing the story in the first place. Awards also build profile, potentially putting your work in front of people who wouldn’t otherwise see it and putting your name on the radar of assigning editors. More than one editor I know scans nomination lists routinely to scout new writers. And hey, I’ve heard winning feels really good (I’ll confirm that if I ever make it out of the finalists and into the winner’s circle).

This year, I was fortunate enough to earn three nominations, all for pieces entered by the editors for whom I’d written. Still I’ve put my entry-fee budget to use elsewhere, entering a couple of specialty awards programs and submitting a radio piece to a US competition as well.

After all, you can’t win if you don’t enter. And if you don’t think your work is worth the entry fee, why should anyone else?

Kim Pittaway is a Toronto-based magazine writer
and editor. She is nominated in three 2008 National Magazine Award categories: Best Short Feature, Health and Medicine and Service: Health & Family.